The myth of high-functioning autism

There’s a term people have been throwing around for a very long time. High functioning Autism. The idea behind this term is that the people who fall in this category are on the autism spectrum but are still able to function in modern day society like everyone else. There is a truth to this term and I like to think its origins had good intentions. But I have a pretty big problem with this term as well. So let’s take a moment today to talk about the myth of high functioning autism and what problems can arise from it.

This is from an article on WebMD, which I don’t know if they’re particularly accurate, but it does line up with my own understanding of the term.

When people use the term high functioning, they tend to mean that someone is very good at functioning within the parameters that society has set out for us. Think of a 9 to 5 job, travel to and from and keeping your household in order. The assumption tends to be that a lot of people on the autism spectrum are fairly intelligent and will find ways to deal with their problems that allows them to seem like regular people. There is some truth to this. Now this is the part where I tell you that I don’t speak for everyone. What a surprise, right? I’ve been called high-functioning many times and I both agree and disagree with this assessment.

You see, there is a problem with labeling people as high functioning. This, to me and many others, signals that someone is very good at functioning. It almost implies that you’re better at functioning than the average person. That’s not the case for most people. What you’re actually seeing is people who are on the spectrum getting really good at doing the things that make them seem like they’re functioning well. They’ve learned thought pattern recognition through cognitive behavioral therapy and they’ve built up enough automatic responses to situations that life becomes more manageable. They know the right thing to say, they prepare so they’re not surprised by things that come their way and they learn how to behave so as to not stand out.

This is mostly irrelevant to this post, but I taught two classes between the previous paragraph and this one and I no longer believe I’m functioning at all. Moving on from that, I think that example kind of proves what I was going to say here. Pretending to fit in, or fitting in with a lot of effort takes energy. We can learn strategies and tips to get better at it and we can use those to make it seem like we know what we’re doing. But doing so doesn’t come without a cost. The cost is two-fold even. The first one is the cost of energy. I’ve talked here many times about how I will get tired very quickly. When I’m more tired my anxiety spikes and worse comes to worst I get panic attacks. None yet this year, going strong. This is why I need to get rest whenever I can and prolonged social interactions will take a toll on me. I can’t talk for other people on the spectrum but I would wager a guess that I’m far from the only one who feels this way.

This brings me to the second cost. This one is a lot more hidden and feels almost sinister in a sense. When I go to school (either uni or the school I teach at) all day, my coworkers probably think I’m a regular functioning adult. I’m quite open about my autism so a lot of them might remember this and consider me to be one of the high-functioning autistic people you hear about. So they treat me like a normal person. That’s great. I don’t want to be treated any differently on a day to day basis. But if you get treated like a normal person then people will also expect you to be a normal person. The cost of functioning reasonably well is that many people don’t understand how much effort this costs. If I want other people to look at me like a normal person, I need to expend two or three times the energy that I have and the end result ends up being less understanding of the situation I’m in.

(Taken from Neurodivergent insights) Spoon theory has been around for a long time. It’s a way to explain why people with autism will run out of energy. The best way I can describe my situation is by having too few spoons and spending a portion of the remaining spoons on pure anxiety. Good times.

Of course, this is a double edged sword. Do I undersell my own capabilities so that people have more understanding for them and will cut me some slack? Or do I pretend I’m perfectly okay with functioning at a normal pace and risk that people overestimate me and I end up crying in an empty room?
I realize that I’ve shifted the conversation from a general group of people to myself. I hope you’ll excuse me for that, I only have my own experiences and can’t speak for other people. I do think that I’m not the only one who feels this way and whenever I read about someone who goes through the same issues as me it makes me feel a little bit better, so I hope to have a similar effect on other people. If not, this is just an outlet to let me rant about the problems I have to deal with in the hope that people might understand it a little bit better.

So next time you hear someone talk about high functioning, take a moment for yourself to think about what that means. Is there a higher way of functioning than what is expected of most people or is it a fancy way of saying that people on the spectrum work really hard to deal with their problems and don’t get enough understanding and compassion because of it. I hear autism used as an insult a lot and although I think that partially comes from a place of more people trying to understand what it actually means I do also think there’s a lot of bad information circulating and people are quick to judge. Let me know if you see yourself in what I talked about or if there’s something you read that reminds you of someone you know. Maybe you disagree with what I said and have a completely different view on things. I welcome you to leave a comment down below if that’s the case, it’s always interesting to learn from others. Either way, if you’ve made it this far I appreciate your time and thanks for reading!

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